International survey: Democracies are failing to meet expectations

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Recently, Dalia Research in collaboration with the Alliance of Democracies Foundation and Rasmussen Global presented the results of the 2019 Democracy Perception Index (DPI). Findings indicate that the majority of people living in democratic states do not feel that their governments are upholding essential democratic components such as encouraging public participation in politics, working for the people, allowing freedom of speech and ensuring access to balanced and neutral information. According to the researchers, the survey illustrates that “democracy’s crisis is not about people losing faith in democracy – it’s about people demanding more.”

The Democracy Perception Index

The DPI is one of the world’s largest annual studies on democracy, conducted by Dalia Research in collaboration with the Alliance of Democracies Foundation and Rasmussen Global, to monitor attitudes towards democracy from around the world. This study focuses specifically on public perception, motivated by the premise that democracy’s survival depends primarily on how citizens perceive it. Results for the 2019 edition of DPI are based on nationally representative, anonymous interviews with 177,870 respondents from 54 countries conducted between April 18th and June 6th 2019.

How important is democracy for the people around the world? Source: Dalia Research

Faith in democratic performance in decline

As this blog discussed earlier in the year, a ‘third wave’ of autocratization has resulted in the steady decline of democratic regimes. Since 1994, democracies have shown setbacks in key democratic components such as freedom of speech, access to neutral information and social inclusion. The findings in the DPI report show that these setbacks have not gone unnoticed by the public. The report shows that a worrying 45% of participants living in democracies do not believe their countries are actually democratic. Interestingly, 9 out the 10 countries where people feel most politically ‘voiceless’ are Western European countries which have the most developed democratic institutions. These figures suggest that people’s expectations of what constitutes a strong democracy have grown and governments are failing to meet these standards.

People’s expectations in democracy have grown

The questions in the DPI survey seek to gauge to what extent people feel their leaders act in their interest, how confident they are to engage in political discussion and disagreements and how much they feel that they have access to balanced and neutral information.

The results show that those living in democracies are generally more disgruntled than those living in autocracies with regards to the aforementioned issues. A worrying 64% of those living in democratic countries said that they believe their government ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ acts in their interest. On the other hand, only 41% of respondents in autocratic countries believe their governments do not have their interests at heart. Although these figures are interesting, it is very difficult to draw concrete conclusions from them as respondents were potentially influenced by fear of persecution for speaking against an autocratic regime. This is somewhat evident when considering that only 15% of people in Saudi Arabia – a country where speaking against the government is punishable by death – said that their government never or rarely acts in their interests despite Saudi Arabia having grossly inadequate social institutions relative to their wealth.

Faith in democracy as a principle remains

Although the findings in the report are bleak and highlight the shortcomings of democracy today, they do not show that people are dissatisfied with democracy per se (79% of participants said that it is important to have democracy in their country). Rather, the findings show that people are not happy with the standard of the democracy which they are being given.

People are not dissatisfied with democracy per se

People want to feel more influential in decision making, allowed to make their voice heard and not fed endless streams of misinformation. Ultimately, democracy can only function when people are actively involved in its processes. Governments must recognise that large portions of their electorate feel overlooked and make steps towards winning back the faith of the people or risk losing legitimacy in the eyes of their electorate.

Ryan Whyte
Ryan is a graduate from The University of Edinburgh (Law LLB) and The University of Glasgow (International Relations MRes) currently based in Berlin.
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